Sun | Sep 26, 2021

Editorial | Debate university education

Published:Wednesday | July 3, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The education ministry’s incompetent roll-out of its Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exam for grade-six students has rightfully exercised the minds of Jamaican parents. But there is another looming crisis in education that demands attention and serious debate. It has to do with the cost of university education to Caribbean students, especially by the regional University of the West Indies (UWI), including at its Mona, Jamaica campus.

This issue, of course, isn’t new. It has been the subject of sporadic debate for the better part of two years. Unfortunately, the conversation has not been sustained and taken to a resolution. It now appears, though, to be galloping to a head, exacerbated by the fiscal problems faced by Caribbean governments that own the university, but can ill-afford to meet their obligations to it at past levels.

The UWI’s financial accounts for the year to July 2018 highlighted the growing problem. The university increased its income by 5.4 per cent to BDS$965.3 million (J$61.6 billion), but ended with a deficit of BDS$95.2 million on expenditure of BDS$1.06 billion. This represented a worsening of the previous year’s deficit by 249 per cent. A large part of this negative outcome is accounted for in a BDS$87.1-million loss the university booked in 2018 as part of a 50 per cent haircut it took on monies owed by Barbados, as part of that country’s debt rescheduling under an International Monetary Fund-supported economic reform programme.

Things would have been worse but for the fact that the university had previously booked a BDS$45.8-million impairment on its Barbados debt. The bottom line is that in these tough economic times, Caribbean governments are no longer funding their students at the regional institution at the same level they used to. Up to relatively recently, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago paid the full economic cost of their students at UWI. Jamaica, at one point, provided its students with an 80 per cent subsidy, but this has been in decline over the past 30 years, accelerating over the last decade.

Indeed, in recent years, governments’ contribution to the university’s income has hovered at around 45 per cent, and while the institution has significantly increased its earnings from other sources, such as through endowments and special projects, that hasn’t been enough to close the gap left by retreating governments.

What students pay in tuition and other fees accounts for between 13 and 14 per cent of The UWI’s income. Yet, based on the figures in its 2017-18 report, it costs BDS$21,857 (US$10,928) per student to operate the university. Students, on average, pay around BDS$3,060.

At the Mona, Jamaica campus, where around 19,400 students are registered and the island’s Government contributed 36 per cent of its 2017 income of J$18.7 billion, up to 40 per cent of prospective students who are offered places don’t take them up. That is despite a 12 per cent rise in registration over five years.

According to the campus’ principal, Professor Dale Webber, competition from other universities, local and abroad, is one reason. “The other is prospective students’ inability to pay for their tuition,” he said in his annual report. And that is despite the campus, with the help of the private sector, supporting the State’s subsidies with J$1.6 billion in scholarships and bursaries.

Increase not likely

It is neither likely, in the near term, that the Jamaican Government will be able to significantly increase its direct subsidy to the university nor expand its students’ loan scheme to the extent of the demand on the system. Indeed, in the 2015-16 fiscal year, the latest period for which full reports are available, applications to the state-owned Students’ Loan Bureau declined eight and a quarter per cent and the 12,929 who were approved for loans were six per cent fewer than the previous year.

Disbursements fell by more than four per cent, to J$33.31 billion. While loan payments during that period increased by 25 per cent, a similar proportion of the agency’s loan portfolio was deemed delinquent – overdue by 90 days or more. In the face of these developments, there needs to be new thinking about how we approach university education in order to make it more affordable. It may be that tertiary institutions might have to deliver a cheaper product, or with a greater level of product differentiation.

Perhaps The UWI might be in the elite three per cent of the world’s universities open to those who can afford to pay for it, while other tertiary institutions would provide shorter diploma courses aimed at preparing people for a workforce that needs specialist skills.